Un-Blurring the Lines: On Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, and the MTV Video Music Awards... and the Need for a Culture of Revolt Against a Revolting Culture

September 23, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


From a reader who works with the movement for revolution and with End Pornography and Patriarchy: The Enslavement and Degradation of Women!

There has been a whole lot of talk and criticism of Miley Cyrus for her performance at the August MTV Video Music Awards. Almost all of the criticism has been directed at her, with little of the criticism directed towards Robin Thicke. Most of the criticism has been that Miley was "indecent," or a "slut," or that she was racist in the way that she used Black female dancers. Others are defending her performance by saying that she is just being sexual, and that there was nothing really wrong with her performance. Some of the mainstream freak-out has clearly been amplified by thinly veiled racism over the fact that she "twerked," while others have accused Miley of wrongly "appropriating Black culture."

In this piece, I will offer some thinking on the many levels at which this whole incident, including most of the terms of "debate" around it, reveals the need for a culture of revolt against this truly revolting culture. To begin with, while it was far from unique or even the most extreme manifestation in popular culture today, her performance was very much in keeping with a whole culture that degrades and objectifies women, sexuality, and Black people.

But, to simply call Miley a "slut," without any other content, says much more about how the critic views women and sexuality than it does about Miley Cyrus. And while I realize that many people, even feminists, uphold the use of that term, it most certainly is meant to degrade, not empower, women. And it certainly is not being used in an empowering way in any of the online comments that I've seen. Furthermore, the framework of "slut" vs. "good girl" with "good girls" being chaste and virginal is all wrong; the former because of how it degrades women into sex objects, and the latter because it sees women as objects and property. This view stems from the patriarchal view that women need to be controlled and be kept sexually "pure" until marriage and then breed and rear children for their husbands. This patriarchal view is also reflected in how people are speculating and talking about what her father thinks and how he will react. And some of the freaking out that is happening is bound up with white supremacist ideas and how people think white women should or shouldn't act, and this is a part of why this has been so controversial and talked about among so many people. But to dismiss all criticism in defending Cyrus against those kinds of unprincipled attacks is also a wrong method. There are some things here that are definitely in need of criticism.

The thing is, this was not just any song that Miley and Robin Thicke performed. One of the songs that Miley danced to at the VMA was "Blurred Lines," a chart-topping song by Robin Thicke. The music video and the lyrics of the song have sparked big controversy, and plenty of YouTube parodies and for good reason. In the unrated version, the men retain their clothes, while the women are all topless, wearing very small nude-colored thongs, and vapid "not-all-there" expressions. Here are examples of the lyrics: "I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two." "You the hottest bitch in this place." "I know you want it, I know you want it, I know you want it, You're a good girl." This song promotes objectification of women and rape, it contributes to and celebrates "rape culture," and it's a sharp example of how the lines between porn and pop culture are being blurred. All this was part of the context of this moment.

But let's zoom out even further for a minute. We can't really understand the context of the VMA performance without understanding that we live in a society where a whole war on women is raging right now, including in how putrid and pornified popular culture is. Women in the entertainment industry, including Miley Cyrus who grew up around and within that industry, are expected to up the ante and be as sexual, provocative, and outrageous as possible. And certainly this is especially true of women who need to shred the image of being a "good girl" that they had when they were teen stars. We have seen this before with stars like Madonna and Britney Spears, and others. To see Miley's performance and criticize her as an individual, without seeing the societal backdrop of all this and calling that out, is all wrong. Yes, she is making choices, but from a certain set-up of choices, which are very much the same set-up of so-called choices that most 20-year-old women are facing: either be invisible, or give into the pressure and take up, even revel in, the commodification and objectification of your body and sexuality. Think of how intensified that kind of pressure is, and how tied up one's self-worth is in all that, especially if your job is about capturing and captivating people's attention, and making sure that you—as a product for sale, are undeniably visible and in demand.

While so many people are talking about rape culture, and "Blurred Lines," we have got to talk about pornography. Virtually NO critics talking about this right now are calling out the role of pornography, how it's become increasingly more violent towards women, at the same time it's become more mainstream. How it has increasingly pornified the culture, including in helping to promote "twerking" as a major social phenomena. (Twerking is a super-sexualized type of dancing, done almost always by women, that involves squatting, or bending over at the waist, or doing a handstand against a wall and then gyrating and swinging the hips, and popping the butt in a fast tempo. It's a dance that uses porn-style sexual moves, usually to rap music, and danced for an audience, and it can be done alone, or with partners, but always focuses the viewers' attention on the woman's butt.) Sure, twerking came out of elements of Black culture (originating in the bounce music/dance scene), but it was popularized through the strip clubs of Atlanta and Houston and is today much more reflective of strip and porn culture that degrades and devalues women, even if it mainly appears in rap videos to the broader viewing public.

Besides, even if it were "part of Black culture," that still doesn't make it beyond the bounds of criticism. Pornography, narrow me-first-ism, white supremacy, and a celebration of small-minded ignorance are all very much a part of American culture and all these things need to be criticized and ended! Things like female genital mutilation and stoning to death women who have been raped are cultural practices, yet they're horrific and deserve to be condemned, regardless of what culture they are part of or represent, even if they are part of the culture of oppressed peoples. These are not abstractions, these are real people, real women, and their lives—and these practices are intolerable and unacceptable.

We should also raise the point that there are genres of pornography that are extremely racist, and use disgusting racial epithets and promote racist stereotypes (of Black women and Black men) that would be roundly condemned in any other sphere of society, but people find it palatable, even desirable (and seek it out), when it comes to pornography. This has real impact on people's thinking and it does "blur the lines" of what people find acceptable.

Part of what is so wrong about this, is that Black people are dehumanized through this, and racism and white supremacy still exist; we are NOT living in a post-racial society. This type of porn and these types of "fantasy" have real consequences in the real world.

Black people are NOT free right now, and not only is there a war on women, but there is systemic racism and oppression of Black people through the New Jim Crow, with mass incarceration as the leading edge of a slow genocide against Black people. Think of what it means that there are 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons, mostly Black and Latino people! Police brutality and murder are rampant, and policies like stop-and-frisk allow and require police to racially profile Black and brown people. Trayvon Martin, and George Zimmerman getting away with the murder of Trayvon, was a concentrated example of what is happening throughout the U.S. Slavery and Jim Crow were systems of oppression that relied more heavily on the open humiliation and ridicule of Black people, yet there are certainly 21st-century forms of minstrel shows and Blackface performances and other ways in which art and culture is affected by the oppression of Black people. In fact, some have called out gangsta rap as a whole genre to be a type of minstrelsy, including in how some of the inspiration for it came from Blaxploitation films.

Yet, what is most striking about all the conversation about "appropriation of Black culture," is that there is not much at all being said about the content of mainstream culture, or the content of "Black culture." A great majority of the culture that exists in the world today is all caught up with the values of capitalism: the celebration of parasitism, the dog-eat-dog mentality, the master/slave mentality... as Kanye West would say: the "dicks and the swallowers." It truly is a revolting culture, everywhere you look, and especially with how women are held down and slammed backwards. Just spin the globe, and look at how all countries across the world degrade and enslave women... from the sweatshops of China, to the brothels and sex slavery on a scale never seen before in human history in Europe and Asia. From El Salvador where women suspected of abortion are imprisoned, to India with an epidemic of gang rape as well as thousands of wives set on fire and murdered after their dowry is paid. From the Middle East with the veil and "honor killings," to the Congo where rape has been a systematic weapon of war and tens of thousands of women have been raped so badly they have lost bladder and bowel control. From parts of Africa where women who are coming of age have their labia and clitoris cut off to blunt sexual sensation for life and to prepare them to be a "loyal and faithful" wife, to the U.S. where teens starve and cut themselves in epidemic proportions, where among the most oppressed there is a whole generation that extols the "hos and bitches" and violent pimp mentality, and where one third of all women in the world who are in prison are locked up in this supposedly "free" country.

Throughout the world, we need revolution! We can, and MUST fight to change the culture, and fight to change the whole world, and women must have their fury unleashed as part of building a movement for revolution and then carrying this revolution forward after power has been seized until real communism, real human emancipation everywhere, has been achieved. As Bob Avakian has said:

Let's imagine if we had a whole different art and culture. Come on, enough of this "bitches and ho's" and SWAT teams kicking down doors. Enough of this "get low" bullshit. And how come it's always the women that have to get low? We already have a situation where the masses of women and the masses of people are pushed down and held down low enough already. It's time for us to get up and get on up.

Imagine if we had a society where there was culture—yes it was lively and full of creativity and energy and yes rhythm and excitement, but at the same time, instead of degrading people, lifted us up. Imagine if it gave us a vision and a reality of what it means to make a whole different society and a whole different kind of world. Imagine if it laid out the problems for people in making this kind of world and challenged them to take up these problems. Imagine if art and culture too—movies, songs, television, everything—challenged people to think critically, to look at things differently, to see things in a different light, but all pointing toward how can we make a better world.

Imagine if the people who created art and culture were not just a handful of people but all of the masses of people, with all their creative energy unleashed, and the time were made for them to do that, and for them to join with people who are more full-time workers and creators in the realm of art and culture to bring forward something new that would challenge people, that would make them think in different ways, that would make them be able to see things critically and from a different angle, and would help them to be uplifted and help them to see their unity with each other and with people throughout the world in putting an end to all the horrors that we're taught are just the natural order of things. Imagine all that.

BAsics 2:8

There are ways in which the oppression of women and the oppression of Black people are similar, and related, including in how they're both rooted in this system of capitalism. These are backward social relations that are grounded in how things are produced, and the relationship of people and sections of people to the economy. This capitalist-imperialist system is a system that relies on oppression and exploitation in order to function. The oppression of Black people and the oppression of women are pillars that help prop up the whole system, and we need a revolution to do away with all of this shit. None of this oppression is due to human nature, and none of the way things are right now is permanent. The emancipation of Black people and the liberation of women are completely bound up with one another, and none of us are free until all of us are free.

The main problem with identity politics and with telling white people to STFU ("shut the fuck up") about the oppression of Black people, or telling men to STFU about the oppression of women, or telling people that "solidarity is for white women," as became a huge trend recently on Twitter, is that it leaves us with the same fucked-up world that we have right now. It leaves people paralyzed, afraid they'll be "corrected" into paralysis every time they speak up, and narrowing everything they say to their own experience instead of looking at society at a macro level with a searing, courageous, and scientific method and approach. It's right to speak out against injustice and horrors, no matter your particular "identity." It's right to fight for revolution, whether you are male, female, Black, white, gay, straight, young, old, Latino, Native American, whoever you are. Not only that, people's words and ideas should be evaluated based on whether they correspond to objective reality, not based on who is speaking them.

If you hunger for an end to the horrors of the world as it is right now, if you yearn for a radically different and far better world, you have got to check out the new synthesis of communism that Bob Avakian has been working on and fighting for. And while you are checking into that, and getting deeper with that and the movement for revolution, keep speaking out, and keep fighting back! (And I'm including prominent people, people like Miley Cyrus, who isn't right about everything she does, but took a good stand in tweeting several times against the Zimmerman verdict.)

What matters most in speaking out against oppression is not the color of your skin, or your particular experience, but the content of the argument... and what kind of goals and what kind of world you are fighting for. What do you stand for? Are you fighting for your share of the spoils of empire? Or are you fighting to forge a way OUT of that, and to a world where women and Black people are not just "equal," but a world in which NO ONE is exploited and commodified? There are a lot of people with all kinds of skin tones and genders, from different cultures and backgrounds, who hate the way things are, who hate how horrific the world is, and even more people could be brought to see how fucked-up things are, and how necessary and desirable a revolution is if there were more people fighting the power and spreading this revolution, including BA in particular, everywhere.

In defending the "Blurred Lines" video and lyrics, Robin Thicke said that criticism of the video was "only for extra religious people." We vehemently disagree, and will continue to criticize any and all music videos, VMA performances, and other aspects of culture that promote a dehumanized view of women as objects for the sexual pleasure of men. The fact that "Blurred Lines" was nominated for three awards at the VMA, and that this song is at all popular, let alone popular enough to raise to that level on the charts, says a great deal about how revolting the culture is, and the deep need for a radical revolt against this revolting culture. Artists, performers, and other prominent people, like the rest of us that care about humanity, have a responsibility to face what a horror the world is for the majority of humanity, and to fight to change the way things are right now. Artists can play a role within the art they create, and can act in other ways to oppose oppression, and to fight for a whole different future, and can reach out to large fan bases in ways that most people cannot.

We all need to speak out, demand, fight for, and create an entirely different, liberating, and revolutionary culture. A culture that holds as a central point the fact that women and Black people are human beings and not objects or commodities in any sense. A culture that is about emancipating all of humanity. A culture that un-blurs the lines.


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